On 15-16/12/2014, the Ministry of Justice has consulted several ministries, agencies and other organizations on a draft of the Access to Information law. This is a part of the plan to enshrine the right to access information, as stated in article 25th of the Constitution and Congress’s 2015-2016 resolution on the law making and amendment ordinance. The focus of the conference is the circumscription of accessible information to be allowed. Former Deputy Minister of Justice Hoàng Thế Liên chaired this conference.
During the conference, there were many debates regarding the necessity of the Access to Information Law. The representative from Vietnam Government Inspectorate believed that freedom of information should be the foundation of other citizenship rights, particularly the citizen oversight of the government. Without adequate information, people cannot participate in government management and oversight of the society. It has been proved that monopoly on information and censorship often lead to rampant corruption, while transparency and accountability help to eliminate corrupted officials.
Besides agreeing with that statement, other delegates also believed that the right to access information means the right to development on both an individual and social level. Former Deputy Minister Hoàng Thế Liên stated that the Access to Information Law must be based on three important principles. Firstly, it must seek to provide as much information as possible to the citizens. Secondly, any restraint on information in cases of national security, social stability, public health etc. must be accorded to the laws and specified by the Constitution. Such classification must be made open and transparent to avoid leaving what is confidential “confidential”, thus making it difficult to protect state secrets. Thirdly, government responsibility to provide access to information must be clearly institutionalized in laws.
There were many discussions regarding the state secret law drafted by the Ministry of Public Safety. One issue that attracted many delegates was how long classified information should be declassified. According to the representative from Ministry of Public Safety, the right to access information is a constitutional right of utmost importance to development of society, thus this Law must be overreaching. Protecting state secrets is important, but confidential information must be balanced with accessible information. The classified categories established by government agencies must be constantly re-examined and made public.
A general agreement was reached over government agencies’ responsibility to provide accessible information for the citizens. Simply, any agency endowed with public fund must provide information. Therefore, the current draft, which only applied to administrative agencies, must be amended. For example, Congress, the elected branch of government whose information should be open for public access, is not under the regulating scope of this law. Conceivably, state-owned enterprises and mass organizations should also consider to provide accessible information (not confidential) to the citizens.
The representative from iSee also emphasized the citizen’s right to freedom of information. Mr. Lê Quang Bình stated that the Access to Information Law is very important, not only because it protects human rights, but also because it affects the academia, media and press. Without accessible information, Vietnam cannot create a good foundation for policy making, social management and human development. Therefore, this basic, overarching laws should encompass and guide other relevant laws. Currently, the Access to Information Law only focused on the government administrative agencies, while ignoring information regarding privacy, business, copyright, judiciary, audit, inspectorate… The principle of maximum access to information must be extended to encompass other relevant laws.
In the section about providing information per request, Mr. Binh believed that how the citizens/organizations intend to use the information should not be the condition to grant access to information. The citizens have the freedom to use unclassified information without having to report their intention. If they are required to have “justified” purpose for using information, they would be vulnerable to official harassment and violation of their rights. The Chair agreed with this point, and emphasized that the government must have justification if denying a citizen from accessing information. Besides, there must be an oversight mechanism to ensure that the right to access information is effectively implemented.
Ms. Ngo Thu Ha, Deputy Director of CEPEW, stressed that the equality to access information must be upheld. Minority groups like ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged and the illiterate should receive support to have access to information. Regarding the declassification process, Ms. Ha believed that it is important, not only for the citizens’ right to access information, but also for their right to understand their history.
Former Deputy Minister Hoàng Thế Liên believed that the suggestions being made were very straightforward, and encouraged the drafting committee to create an encompassing law protecting the citizens’ right to access information, since this essential law would help the citizens to better exercise their other rights.